Dedication and Devotion
Rock Vinci’s efforts introduce the sport to troubled youths
story by Brian Mazurek
Rock Vinci has a deep passion for harness racing and owns a small stable of six horses. In fact, the 54-year-old driver/trainer has selected a unique and powerful way to share his love of Standardbreds with a tough audience.
A resident of Geneseo, N.Y., Vinci’s day job consists of working with troubled boys, age 13 to 17, at a youth correctional facility. Oddly enough, his endeavors have received compassion and enthusiasm from the young men.
A teacher and special education chairman, Vinci developed a six-week program which allows him to bring several of his own Standardbreds into a limited-security facility, giving the boys a hands-on opportunity to learn about the sport and horses.
“These are really hard-core boys—gang type of kids,” he said. “Many have never seen a horse up close. But to see the tenderness of these boys and their soft sides is amazing. They are scared at first because they are unaware of a horse’s reaction when first touched by them.
“It is most satisfying seeing these boys come around. A few months after they are done working with the horses, they’ll come up to me and say, ‘How is my horse doing? Did he win lately?’ They kind of take ownership of the horses they’ve worked with.”
Implementing the program did not come without its fair share of obstacles, while its maintenance also faces certain challenges.
“It was no easy task,” Vinci said. “I had to develop a curriculum for this, get a special insurance policy to bring horses in, strip the trailer down when bringing it in and having everything to go in certain time frames.”
With the help of his partner, Christine Countryman, who is an English teacher in the Livonia Central School District, Vinci brings four of his horses for each session.
“They get to watch and see the horses interact with each other,” Vinci said. “I also teach them general horsemanship. We show them how to take care of the horses, attach the cart and other things like nutrition and grooming. I also do my own blacksmith work, and I’ll show them that as well.”
The results of the program have received considerable attention from Vinci’s coworkers.
“It’s most satisfying working with them [the boys],” he said. “Hopefully it will be an inspiration for a couple of them maybe to get into the field and work with the horses.”
While Vinci acknowledges how rewarding this particular professional venture is, he admits operating his stable with his family by his side brings him great joy.
In previous years, race days at Buffalo Raceway or Batavia Downs used to involve only Vinci and Christine. They now include their daughters Ella (age 15) and Belle (age 14), who each have their groom license and help in the paddock.
“It used to be date night for Christine and me,” Vinci said. “[We were] doing all the work to prepare the horses to race, which is good, but I love to drive them. That’s half the fun.”
Despite the small size of his stable, Vinci claims his horses earn their keep.
“We don’t have stakes horses,” he said. “But we do have those who make us good money; they get checks.”
Over the past three years, Vinci’s participation in the sport has grown. In 2016, he had 246 starts as a reinsman and conditioner, which was a large increase from his 109 total starts the previous year. His best year was in 2017, with $82,590 in purse earnings from 162 trips to the post as a driver and 163 as a trainer.
“With Christine and the girls on board, we’ve picked up the pace,” he said.
A prolific member of the Vinci stable is the newly retired 15-year-old Rush Rules (Scooter Scott, $339,134). His racing career, however, has not completely concluded as the goal is for the gelding to compete in Racing Under Saddle events.
“He’s always had a tendency to want to trot, so we are going to see if we can get him in that program this summer,” Vinci said. “We kept him racing because he just loved it.”
Although Vinci enjoys his days, he appreciates the calm and peace the barn provides in the evenings.
“Running around with the kids with afterschool activities, it can get real busy, especially this time of year, fighting for daylight,” Vinci said. “But heading to the barn after a stressful day is like going to church. It really is quite relaxing, and with the help of Christine, Ella and Isabelle, things somehow get accomplished every day in the barn.”
One complication Vinci has overcome is the lack of a training track on his premises. Therefore, he has developed a solution that may appear odd, but is effective.
“I literally train my horses on about a four-mile block around my house or take them in between the rows of a Christmas tree farm,” he said. “I’ll first go around the shoulder of the road with my tractor and make sure there’s nothing along the side. If it gets to be dusk, I put a light on the front of the horse and put red taillights on the back of the jog cart so people will see us.”
Vinci said that he was stopped once by a policeman, and after a brief conversation with the officer, he was allowed to proceed. Law enforcement officials now just wave when they see him in action.
His presence on local roads has also not gone unnoticed by village officials, as they were responsible for erecting signs warning motorists to be aware of Vinci and his horses.
“I am known around town as ‘that harness racing guy’ or ‘the guy with the horses,’” he said.
While Vinci and his family are lighthearted and go about their business with that approach, their commitment to harness racing and impacting the lives of troubled youth could not be more serious. HB
Brian Mazurek is a freelance writer living in New York. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.